Friday 29 October 2010

Cameras for Backpacking: Decisions, Decisions

Long distance walks in wild country can take their toll on bodies and equipment. On the Pacific Northwest Trail it was my camera gear that suffered most, with one camera failing completely and the lens on the other losing a major function. Before the walk I had considered buying one of the new smaller cameras, known variously as interchangeable lens cameras (ILC) or micro systems cameras (MSC), such as the Sony NEX 5, Panasonic GF1 or Samsung NX10, that produce the same quality images as DSLRs in order to save weight. However I decided that, quite apart from the extra cost, I’d rather have cameras with which I was familiar and wouldn’t have to think about during the walk so I took my Canon 450D DSLR plus my Sigma DP1 digital compact as a back-up. To keep the weight down I took just one lens with the Canon, an 18-55mm zoom. Both cameras were well-used before the walk, too well-used it seems, given what happened. The DP1 lasted just ten days before the lens stuck in the open position and the whole camera froze. Fresh batteries made no difference. The camera was dead. I did have a camera on my HTC Desire smartphone that would do as a back-up though I doubted the results would be very good. In fact, although nowhere near the quality of the 450D or DP1, the phone camera images looked fine on the web and when printed fairly small in TGO magazine. Using the camera quickly depleted the battery though so I didn’t take many pictures with the phone. The Canon worked fine for the first half of the walk and then the autofocus on the lens started malfunctioning before failing completely. I then had to use manual focus, which was difficult due to the very narrow and very sensitive focusing ring. I had no choice but to persevere with this for the rest of the walk but I knew I would have to replace the lens. Apart from anything else in cold weather manual focusing with cold fingers or when wearing gloves would be just about impossible.

So back home I was faced with the choice of repairs or replacement. The DP1 went to Sigma who quoted £125 to repair it. As the DP1 was a discontinued model with much I didn’t like about it and I could buy the improved DP1s for £100 more I felt reluctant to pay to have it mended. A new Canon lens would cost around £100. As I’d now gone through two of these kit lenses in five years I didn’t expect a replacement would last long. So, £225 to keep the old cameras going. The alternative was to buy a replacement camera for the DP1 that had an 18-55mm lens or equivalent. At this point I’d never actually seen any of the ILC cameras except in pictures. Before making a decision I wanted to handle them so I was pleased to discover that Jessops in Inverness stocked virtually every model. Just viewing the cameras proved instructive. Although I’d seen pictures of them next to DSLRs they were still smaller than I’d realised. Holding them was also instructive. In the hills I want a camera that feels secure in the hand and that I can grip firmly while taking photos. One of the cameras was rejected immediately. It actually felt slippery, the slight curve of the grip seeming to have been designed for your hand to slide off. The models that look like mini DSLRs did have positive hand grips but these were also the bulkiest and heaviest ones. Of the compact style models the Sony NEX 5 had the best grip. It was also the smallest. And in lab tests it had excellent dynamic range – better in fact than many DSLRs including the 450D as well as all the other ILCs. As dynamic range is important for outdoor photography where bright skies and dark foregrounds are common this was a big plus point. The one drawback was the lack of a viewfinder. There’s not even an electronic one available as an extra. I didn’t like the idea of holding the camera out in front of me and trying to keep it steady in the wind or in low light. However the NEX 5 has a tilting screen and I realised I could hold it by my chest with my arms tucked in, which should be as steady as holding it to my eye. The metal-bodied NEX looked pretty solid too and the metal 18-55 lens looked much higher quality than the plastic Canon one. After a few days pondering the decision was made and it was back to Jessops for an NEX 5.

Replacing the DP1 with the NEX 5 means that the 450D will now be used with my 11-18 and 55-250 lenses and carried when weight isn’t too important. Eventually I may replace it with another NEX model and lenses, which will cut weight further. As it is, the NEX 5 plus 18-55 lens weighs 520 grams while the Canon 450D plus 18-55 lens weighs 786 grams and is considerably bulkier.

So far the NEX 5 has only been used on a couple of short walks in dull weather and I haven’t made a direct comparison with the 450D. However the first images suggest that the quality is at least as good as the Canon at low ISOs and much better at high ones. I think I’m going to like this camera. And I’m sure I’m going to like the low weight and bulk. The NEX 5 could be the ideal backpacking camera.

Photo Info: Top: Anagach Woods, Grantown-on-Spey. Sony NEX-5, Sony 18-55 lens@18mm, 1/60@f3.5, ISO 250, sweep panorama function, JPEG tweaked in Lightroom 3.
Bottom: Autumn Leaves. Sony NEX-5,18-55 lens@44mm, 1/50@f5.6, ISO 400, JPEG tweaked in Lightroom 3.


  1. How frustrating! Two cameras failing. Do you think it was just wear and tear?

    How did you like the quilt?

  2. Chris - thanks for the post. Looking to take my photography to the next level from my Panasonic Lumix TZ6 ( although this is a good compact).
    What tripod do you use for backpacking?

  3. i think there is a lot to be said for modern camera phones.
    soon there will be 10mp smartphones out there, that can run mapping software aswell.
    all you need is a couple of extra charged batteries, and multi day walks will be able to be done with just one lightweight gadget!.
    still with map & compass of course!.

  4. Stevie, battery life will have to improve greatly! I had mapping software on my phone. If I had this switched on all day the battery lasted 7-8 hours, far less if I used the camera. And that was with wi-fi and the phone switched off. I had two spare batteries.

    Mark, I have an old Cullman tripod I bought 20 odd years ago. It's held together with duct tape! I think the nearest equivalent is the Cullman Mini.

    Blogpackinglight, I think it was wear and tear. These are lightweight plastic cameras and I do use them a great deal.

    The quilt was fine as temperatures were mostly mild. In colder weather I'd still prefer a sleeping bag.

  5. Hi, Chris.

    For manual focussing in cold conditions, can I recommend fingerless mits. Mine, I think, are by Extremitties, and they worked really well. They wrap my wrists in a warm bandage and kept my fingers nicely warm last week in the Pennines except when poling into a howling gale, when they were just about adequate.

  6. Hi Chris,
    Just a little tip re your very nice new camera. Because of the terrain we sometimes put our gear down in or just having it around the neck, it it beneficial to protect the viewing screen as much as possible.
    If you buy a transparent phone screen protector as used on say the HTC Desire you can cut it to suit your camera saving it from wear and tear....Alan

  7. Thanks for the tips folks!

    Alan, I bought a screen protector with the camera. I'm carrying the camera in an old padded CCS case too.

    John, I used to have some fingerless mitts called Millar Mitts for cold weather climbing. They disappeared years ago. I quite fancy some mitts that convert to fingerless gloves like the Lowe Alpine Convert Mitten Glove. I have some old Wynnster ones like this but the thumb isn't windproof.

  8. Any reason you went for the 18-55 mm lens and not the 16 mm one? I much prefer Pancake lenses for the outdoors, they're lighter and allow much more creative shots; though it is a very personal preference =)

  9. Henrik, I've used a mid-range zoom as my main lens for over twenty years now. I like having the options of wide angle through to short tele. I occasionally took just the DP1 with its 28mm equivalent lens on day hikes and whilst I liked the lightweight and low bulk I found the fixed focal length too limiting.

    My second choice lens would be a wide angle zoom. I hope one will appear for the NEX 5 - at not too high a price! For the present I'll use the Canon 450D with an 11-18mm lens.

  10. Hi Chris
    I has similar problems and after much camera mag reading went to store to get hands on which is vital. Bought the Panasonic GMC G1 and went the whole hog with a pancake lens (which enables carrying in my top pocket when climbing and ski touring)plus a 14-45 zoom (28-90 equiv) for general outdoor use and TGO challenge plus a 45-200 zoom which really needs tripod which I have never before carried.

  11. Hi Mike,
    I looked at the G1 and other Panasonic models but decided on the smaller size, lighter weight, larger sensor and wider dynamic range of the NEX 5.

    I have a 55-250 zoom for the 450D I can handhold in daylight at fairly low ISOs. I always carry a tripod though, even on long backpacking trips. It's for low light and self-portraits.

    My initial tests of the NEX 5 show good quality images at 400-1600 ISO - noticeably better than those from the 450D.

  12. Rab fae Craigellachie,
    you sent a comment about Millar Mitts. I'm afraid this vanished when I tried to publish it (I may have hit the wrong button). Could you send it again? Thanks.

  13. Hi Chris,

    Re the Millar Mitts – next time you are in the village drop into Ritchies in the High Street as Campbell usually stocks them. If not try Mortimers. Ask for Barbour fingerless wool gloves. They are currently around £10.95 a pair.

    Alternatively type “Barrbour fingerless wool gloves” into Google and you’ll have plenty of online retailers to choose from.

    “Outdoor” shops might have stopped selling them but fishing and shooting retailers have always continued to supply good quality fingerless wool gloves.


    Rob fae Craigellachie

  14. Thanks Rob. I've seen these fingerless wool gloves. They don't look like they'll last long and they're not windproof. Millar Mitts were really tough as they were designed for rock climbing. I saw a pair of Extremities Fingerless Sticky Thicky gloves that look pretty tough yesterday. However I think I prefer the Lowe Alpine Convert Mitten Glove.

  15. Hi Chris,

    The Barbour fingerless gloves are actually tougher than they look. I use them for fishing & shooting & my current pair has lasted for a few years now and they have stood up to salt water pretty well.

    Horses for courses and all that - I use various gloves like most of us, from lightweight polypro gloves to my old Helly Hansen Mitts. I have Dachstein Mitts, one pair darned several times (I hate waste!) and another pair well used and still in good condition. I'll use them next time we build an igloo - Andy got an Icebox from Igloo Ed this September and they will be ideal for that!


    Rob fae Craigellachie

  16. Thanks Rob. Looks like I'll have to try a pair!

  17. Chris, I have an NEX-5 that I've used for several months. I really like the tilting screen - holding it low and looking down at the screen is great for candid shots of people - it's like looking down at a twin lens reflex.

    The reason I came upon your blog is that I'm in the Northeast US for our Thanksgiving holiday and having problems with cool weather performance. I took an early walk this morning and found that on replaying images the 4-way controller (and maybe some of the other button/dial functions as well) did not do well at all in the moderately cool temperature - somewhat above freezing it seemed. Moving around the zoomed-in image was erratic, and when getting back to full size review, the review jumped to images other than the one I was looking at. Problems cleared up back inside. Wondered it you've encountered or heard of such issues.

    Bruce Read

  18. Bruce, I haven't had those problems but I haven't used the camera much in cold conditions yet. I did review some images when camping a week ago. The temperature was about +1C and the camera worked fine.

    Oddly, I have had images jumping reviewing them in cold weather on the Canon 450D.

  19. Hi Chris,

    Are these the mitts you are talking about?


  20. Those are indeed Millar Mitts. Thanks. I thought they were no longer available.

  21. I really like my nex 5 a lot. Plan to use it on a climbing trip and I am looking for a camera bag that will fit on my climbing harness, hold the camera with the 16mm lens and the camera has a hand grip. This setup does not fit smoothly in the Sony case. Ideas anyone?

  22. Bob, I can't help I'm afraid. I'm carrying my NEX 5 with 18-55mm lens in an old CCS bag. I haven't found any new camera bags that are the right size.